Claire Blatter reviews The Drowning Girl by Caitlin Kiernan

This book is a very complex one. I put off doing the review for a while, letting myself absorb the content fully. It’s only three hundred something pages, but the story within is heavy. It is about some very triggering content, including a suicide attempt, many references to people who have committed suicide, and descriptions of violence against women. I will be talking a little bit about this kind of stuff in my review, so consider yourself warned.

The story is about two different stories that might or might not have happened, according to the unreliable narrator. A lot of the story focuses on duality: the character is named India Morgan Phelps, but people also call her Imp, her mother and grandmother both committed suicide in two very different ways, the inciting event occurs either in July or August, and the woman she meets might be a siren or a werewolf.

Confused? Yeah, so is the protagonist.

Imp has schizophrenia, and this is very important to the story. Of course, when mental illness plays an important role in the story, I get hyper critical. It’s so easy to just make mental illness into the big scary monster, especially in horror or similar genres. But because the author identifies so deeply with the protagonist we don’t see the schizophrenia as some demonic possession. It’s part of the story, and part of the main character falling apart, but it’s not the enemy. It’s just part of the story, and part of the protagonist.

Another part is her unique take on life. She’s a lesbian, and at the time the story takes place she lives with her girlfriend, who is trans. This is treated very respectfully, which makes sense considering the author is a trans lesbian herself. She is fascinated with art and writing, which come into play as symbols of her understanding of what happened. Imp is trying to tell us the honest story of the past six months or so, and tell us in her unique voice.

It is confusing, as I had said earlier, which made it hard to get into. Also, with all the art and literature talk, it gets a little hard to understand. Some of the art is actually real, and others seem to be made up for the story, which was another thing I didn’t really get. But it doesn’t really matter–being confused is part of the experience. While it is something important, it can take some time to get used to. It was worth it to get to the end in my view.

This story, aside from its drawbacks, is incredible. It is one of the most unique stories I’ve read. The author is a mentally ill trans woman, and so this definitely feels like it comes from the heart. You could place it in horror, with the sinister feeling developed throughout the novel, or fantasy with the creatures of legends and loose grip on reality, or even label it as a memoir considering how it is written, but none of those are quite right. It’s a deeply personal novel, one that I appreciated profoundly as a mentally ill lesbian myself. I would suggest it to anyone who likes complex and dark novels!

Four stars!

Kelly reviews Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws by Kate Bornstein

After the success of the It Gets Better project and the recent publication of the accompanying book, I wanted to revisit another book aimed at suicidal young queers. Kate Bornstein’s Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, and Other Outlaws was first published in 2006. Bornstein is well known as a performance artist and gender warrior, and this book she offers advice for young folks facing bullying, depression, and suicidal thoughts. This book will appeal to some young people for its honesty, though it may turn others off with its occasional corniness. Many adults are likely to enjoy it as well.

The book’s opening chapters drag a bit. Some teens may appreciate the crash course in gender, sexuality, and oppression, but the lack of depth will frustrate others. The heart of the book consists of the 101 alternatives. Each suggestion has been rated for ease, effectiveness, safety, and age-appropriateness. Options range from self-reflective activities like #7: Trash your preferences and reboot, to pure avoidance, as in #14: Run away and hide. Each item has some explanatory text and often further resources to seek out. They are easy to browse and skip through, and the book is best viewed as a guide for occasional reference. Many alternatives are cross-referenced. For example, many lead back to #34: Sing for your supper. Bornstein wants young people to see how to capitalize on their experiences, and uses her own life examples to show the ongoing benefits of self-empowerment. As she is Auntie Kate, some of the recommendations are controversial. However, though she lists self-touch and drug use as options, both are explained within a particular–and quite reasonable–context. (Some parents or teachers may feel uncomfortable with references to sex and drugs, but hey, maybe they could use #7 themselves.)

Overall, Bornstein has created an amiable, flexible set of tools. She recognizes that a lesser form of self-harm is better than suicide, a perspective rarely acknowledged by adults. Her goal is not to trick anyone into being a happier person, but rather to help us grow stronger and build skills to cope in this cruel world.

P.S. Special bonus: the introduction was written by Sara Quin!